Martin Luther King Jr. and the Unfinished Work of Abolishing Poverty

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. warned in an essay wrote shortly before his assassination on April 4, 1968, that turmoil and growing fear in a deeply unequal and deeply divided country could mean that “we will end up with some kind of right-wing urban takeover and a fascist development that the will terribly harm the whole nation.”

‘I Plan to Lead Another Non-Viole...
‘I Plan to Lead Another Non-Violent March Tomorrow’

To address the crisis, Dr. King: “We need a catalog of fundamental economic rights. This would guarantee a job for all people who want and can work. It would also guarantee an income for those who cannot work. Some people are too young, some too old, some physically disabled, and yet they need an income to live on.”

The Nobel Peace Prize winner who organized this spring a campaign of the poor To advance this agenda, she outlined a program to invest in housing and education. And at a time of mass protests against the Vietnam War, King set in his 1968 paper to denounce “a tragic confusion of priorities” that resulted in the United States spending “all this money on death and destruction and not nearly enough money on life and constructive development.”

This is the message from King that is imperative for us to remember today as we remember the life and legacy of a proud, militant advocate for racial, social and economic justice. For King and his great ally, A. Philip Randolph (the union leader who led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) the years following the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were dedicated to advancing the entire agenda of the march and the movement.

Organizers kept up the pressure for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. But they didn’t stop there. They kept making demands. Along with other key figures of the March on Washington, such as brilliant organizer Bayard Rustin, labor movement allies and top economists, they returned to the White House in 1965 and 1966 toFreedom Budget for All Americans,‘ who spent over ten years searching for these results:

  1. To provide full employment for all who are willing and able to work, including those who need education or training to make them willing and able to do so.
  2. To ensure decent and reasonable wages for all who work.
  3. To ensure a decent standard of living for those who cannot or should not work.
  4. Wipe out slum ghettos and provide decent homes for all Americans.
  5. To provide all Americans with decent medical care and decent educational opportunities at a price they can afford.
  6. To purify our air and water and develop our transportation and natural resources on a scale that meets our growing needs.
  7. To combine sustainable full employment with sustainable full production and high economic growth.

The Freedom Budget was a visionary document that, in Randolph’s words, declared that “we meet on a common basis of determination that in this richest and most productive society known to mankind, the scourge of poverty can and must be abolished.” – not in the distant future, not in this generation, but in the next ten years!”

The language and ambition of the Freedom Budget anticipate today’s messages conveyed in the speeches by California Representative Barbara Lee, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders Halls of Congress echo the pulpit of the Rev. William Barber II.

It’s good to acknowledge how visionary King, Randolph, and Rustin were. But it’s also necessary to acknowledge how frustrating it is that the work of the 1960s remains unfinished in the 2020s.

Amid the wreckage of the battle over President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, it’s important to understand that the plan derailed by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and other so-called “centrist” Democrats does not propose anything particularly radical had himself. It was a modest investment in the agenda, which King said was necessary to stave off the societal divisions, violence and fascist threats that occupied the civil rights leader more than 50 years ago — and that concern conscientious Americans today.

Democrats held power in the mid-1960s—they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress—but they failed to realize the full promise of King’s moving plea in his March on Washington speech: “the jangling divisions of our… transforming the nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

King’s language was poetic, but he spoke of the need for a practical agenda. In his foreword to the Freedom Budget, King politically argued for a multiracial, multiethnic movement to end poverty based on the budget’s agenda.

The long road ahead requires that we emphasize the needs of all of America’s poor, for there is no way to find jobs, decent housing, or quality integrated schools just for Negroes. We will eliminate slums for negroes as we destroy ghettos and build new cities Everyone. We will eliminate Negro unemployment in exchange for full and fair employment Everyone. We will produce an educated and skilled Negro mass when we achieve a twentieth-century educational system Everyone.

The main argument was that housing, health care and education should be understood and promoted as human rights. “This emphasis on human rights is an integral part of the Freedom Budget,” King wrote, arguing that it “sets, in my opinion, a new and creative tone for the great challenge we still face.”

Some are now calling for a rollback of the bold plans of the President and progressive Congress leaders, including Senator Sanders, who played a key role in developing the “Build Back Better” agenda. They reject talk of abolishing poverty as fiscally unrealistic and utopian. But Democratic lawmakers and pundits urging a more cautious and piecemeal approach would do well to consider King’s advice.

“It is not enough to project the freedom budget. We must attend to the legislative task to see that it is carried out promptly and fully,” he warned in 1966. “The liberty budget is essential if the Negro people are to make further advances. It is essential if we want to preserve social peace. It is a political necessity.”

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